Killed by life

The idea of grieving the living isn’t new to me.  A grief counselor opened it up at an autism conference I attended years ago.  There are crossovers between disability and death – dreams are lost, so are familiar comforts and joys.

Today I bumped into a good article on this topic, from the American Academy of Bereavement.  In a 2015 piece entitled Unconventional Grief: Grieving Someone Alive, AAB shares good insight,

jesus-weptThis form of grief, just like grieving someone who is deceased, does not change the level of attachment to the person. Simply, this person is no longer acting how they were before and have had a dramatic shift in personality… Unlike when someone dies, you are unlikely to experience positive emotions while grieving someone alive. When someone passes, you are surrounded by the comfort of their loved ones and are often able to look at the joy of their life. This rarely happens with unconventional or ambiguous grief. Just like when someone dies, you are likely to be overcome with sadness. However, the reminder of your sadness is constant…

The article focuses on sudden change in an adult, such as drug addiction or the onset of mental illness.  For caregivers of children with developmental disabilities, the loss isn’t so much who the person used to be, but who you dreamed of them becoming.  There’s grief either way.

Read the whole thing.  There are some positive suggestions for the grieving caregiver, including this one which has been so true of living with our son’s autism,

Open yourself up to change. One of the hardest parts of grieving someone alive is that you are forced to accept a changed relationship that you do not want. It may be difficult for you to look on a loved one in a different life, but you may be able to experience a rewarding relationship with them in new ways than before. Focusing on finding joy in your new relationship will help keep your mental state positive rather than gloomy.

Finding joy in Joey-as-Joey, rather than as the Joey of our daydreams, has been an essential care giving tool and its own reward.

And Jesus opened his mouth and taught them, saying:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  (Matthew 5:2-4)

 

What’s left

We are almost sitcom laugh track worth ’round here today.

Joey, our 23 year old with autism, has a nasty cough and is home in a NyQuil haze.  He’s intoning Disney movie lines in a voice that sounds like the audio of a slow motion replay.

Melissa (mom/caregiver) is suffering from a double shot – one shot of staying up all night to care for Joey and the other a shot of recurring pain from a chronic illness.  She’s closed her eyes for a few minutes (btw I think she’s pretty when she sleeps but that’s just editorializing and so I’ll move on).

Tyrion Aftermath-of-the-attack

Tyrion Lannister visits our living room today.  From here.

I (Tim – dad/caregiver) am sittin’ here typing this while my eyes keep closing and head drops on the verge of sleep.  I have the day off but I’m sleep deprived from some kind of phantom leg pain (possible arthritis although disc problem is another one the doctor threw in to consider).

We are all beat up in one way or another, but not by one another.  If anything, there’s a tenderness in the house that is surprising given how cranky pain can make any one of us.

When all else fails (and hey, what doesn’t when you’re a caregiver?), your kindness remains a gift to those in your care.  On days when all of you are hurting, you find out that everyone in the household is a care giver and a recipient of care at the same time.

Letting another’s head rest on your shoulder is a successful intervention, “How are you?” is deep communication and “Sit down, I’ll get that for you” is heroic service.

Sometimes what’s left is you, and you’re plenty.

I sent a prayer request to a friend in the midst of our family sick day, and what he sent back says it pretty well,

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)

Reading while waiting

clock

Pic from here.

On this end, we’re still waiting on a new meeting date to get our son’s residential placement going.

This morning while waiting for the bus to his day program, I ran into a young woman’s blog piece about living with her brother and his autism.

What she describes gave me a brief shiver of memory.  We endured some of this stuff for years.  Yes, our son has come a long way; no, that doesn’t erase the gut reaction when reading

First of all, nobody truly recognises how tough it is merely to care for someone who needs assistance with everything. Stephen is 6 ft. 2 and has to be bathed, washed and nappies changed. Physically, and mentally, it is downright exhausting. His sleep schedule is non-existent and his meltdowns are unpredictable. His self-harming happens unexpectedly and can last for indeterminate amounts of time. These are the children you don’t see in autism awareness adverts; headbutting walls, smacking their heads, nipping and biting and scratching. It is the most draining thing to devote hours upon hours simply trying to prevent someone from hitting themselves, and a task that seems so stupid and meaningless in nature when you know that, come a few hours’ time, it will simply happen again.

And the decades between the young woman and our aging (aged?) selves evaporate as she describes our common worry,

I am 19; I should spend my days fretting about having enough money to go out at the weekend and passing exams to get my degree. My biggest fear about the future should be whether I’m going to achieve my dream job, what countries I will travel to. Instead, I worry about what will become of my brother. He understands nothing of pain and manipulation and danger. My brother is so bearing on the spectrum that he needs round the clock care, and when I am the only one left to do that, how will I cope?

OK, back to waiting.

Loneliness

Just caught some stats from across the pond,

  • Research by Sense has shown that up to 50% of disabled people will be lonely on any given day…
  • A report by Carers UK revealed that 8 out of 10 carers have felt lonely or isolated as a result of looking after a loved one.

That’s right, half of people with special needs experience loneliness in the course of a day.  But on top of that, 80% of those who care for them feel lonely or isolated – and care giving is cited as the source of the emotion.

We get that here.  Care giving wipes out spontaneity, for one thing.  A friend calls and says, “Hey, wanna go down to the bar and watch the game?” and all you can say is “I can’t” or, at best, “Well, I can watch the first quarter but then have to get home.”

Social life withers because the needs of the people in our care keep us pinned down with tasks or plain old being “on watch, just in case.”

When some neighbors invited us to join them around a fire pit on a cool evening, Melissa and I had to take turns. One of us stayed in to watch our son, the other socialized, then we switched. We couldn’t have fun as a couple.

And many folks are uncomfortable coming into a care giving environment, and friends or family who are willing can come only so often without being turned into exhausted, lonely care givers themselves.

Tony Gaines Starz

Tim (right) and his lifetime pal.

We just enjoyed a great weekend.  A childhood friend (of Tim’s) and his wife spent two days here as part of their drive around America.  They didn’t ask much of us – in fact, they were clear that they wanted to see us, not go sightseeing around Sioux Falls.

So we relaxed and shared great memories and ate and laughed and talked about what was on our hearts and minds and… were anything but lonely.  It was wonderful.

Melissa StarzOur son with autism, Joey, was his usual self, staying on the periphery until he was comfortable with the strangers.  You can see the “I’m not sure about this” posture in this picture.  But notice that he’s not detached – he’s looking right into the camera (eye contact is elusive when autism is in the house).  Melissa (middle) is obviously not feeling lonely, stressed or like a caregiver for the moment.  (Note: being a caregiver doesn’t mean you can’t be cute, too.)

The point is that any and all of you who know families in care giving mode – and by that I don’t mean just with autism, but Alzheimer’s, chronic illness, aged parents, disability and just about any situation that can confine one person and others to provide care – have great power to intrude on loneliness and isolation.

YOU are a gift.  Yeah, it’s great when a neighbor clears my driveway in winter.  That saves me some stress and strain.  But even greater is time to laugh and talk and BS about stuff.  All of that human social glue that care giving dries up, you can spill afresh by your time with caregivers and those in our care.

And don’t forget the goatherds.  They get lonely, too.

 

You open your email and…

On behalf of the Placement Committee, I would like to offer a tour at [a special needs group home] to Joey Fountain.

I like to write but all of the descriptions of my reaction to this message get trite. You know, my jaw hit the floor, my eyes popped out of my head kind of stuff.

Joey, our son with autism, is 23 now.  We’ve hoped for and dreaded this opportunity for years.  I can’t blog a whole lot on it at the moment because our thoughts and emotions are bouncing off the walls (man, this is getting cheesier by the keyboard stroke).

[Let me throw in one practical suggestion.  If you are a Google user, Google Docs is a great resource.  My wife started a document with our growing list of questions and stuff to get done as we approach the transition meetings and the move itself.  It auto-saves, so you can’t lose stuff by closing it in an emotional haze.  You can use email to invite in others (you know, your spouse and other care giving ally types), so they can open it on their screen and add to it as well.

If you are awake all night stewing about the issue (as are we), you can just add to the document and your allies will be able to see it when they open the document later.  No need to make copies and then more copies as you revise – you can all be online editing together in real time.]

In Raising a Child with Autism, I shared a lovely little vignette about Melissa raising gardenias and then wrote,

Giving away gardenias hardly compares to the “giveaway” in our future.  Joey is on a waiting list to move into a group residence.  It is uncomfortable to think about looking into his bedroom, just down the hall from ours, and seeing an empty space.  Like Melissa’s gardenias, he’s grown in beautiful ways.  And the time is coming to let him go.

That was composed in reflective calm, when the “waiting list” was just a vague background reality, something that wouldn’t really mean anything until…  until a couple of weeks ago when I opened my email and there it was, specific, real and hulking in the foreground of our lives.

I’m sure Melissa and I will share more here as we walk through this together.  Your prayers and encouragement mean a great deal.

For now, here’s a sweet picture of Joey, taken one 4th of July in Sioux Falls.  We know holidays can be a challenge for caregivers – here’s hoping that your family “fireworks” stay far off in the sky.

Smiling Joey

Medical Meet & Greet

I need you to soothe my head
Turn my blue heart to red
(the late Robert Palmer. More later)

Our allies in care giving are precious. The folks who coordinate and provide services to our son with autism (Allies! Yay!) were quite helpful with recommendations for a new primary physician (Allies!  Yay!) to see our guy. I want to distill some of that experience in ways that I hope will be useful.

  • Let the person in your care help direct the search.  Note his/her day to day preferences.  Is your loved one more comfortable with men or women?  Younger or older adults?  Will the distance to the doctor matter – how does the person in your care tolerate travel?  Any and all subjective impressions can help you seek out the right doctor.
  • Know your needs.  We wanted a younger doctor who with potential to take care of our son for years to come.  We wanted a practice where every appointment would be with that actual doctor, not a Physician’s Assistant. (That’s not a knock on PAs, it’s just that our son does better with familiar people rather than serial strangers).
  • Ask around.  We do it all the time for all kinds of goods and services, so ask for recommendations.  We made an appointment to meet a particular doctor based on recommendations from professional staff we trust.  Friends who are caregivers can give you good insights from their experiences, too.  (You can tell I’m an aging caregiver.  I prefer old school “human intelligence” gathering to online stuff like Yelp.  I want to know the source of a review or recommendation, and I’ve had professional friends burned by crummy reviews made up by crummy people.)
  • Schedule a meet & greet.  Start building a relationship before there’s an emergency or acute problem.  We made an appointment for our son just to meet the new doctor.  I don’t want to be flippant about this.  I realize that for some of you, insurance issues might inhibit you from making appointments of this sort, especially if you are going to check out more than one doctor.  Our son’s disability coverage made this doable for us.
  • Ask questions and share info.  Don’t consider any question rude or stupid, or any anecdote about the person in your care to be trivial.  My wife was clear about our son’s resistance, up to and including violence, to short tempered people or while in a post-seizure state, and she asked the doctor about his ability to remain calm and patient.
  • Observe.  The person in your care needs to be at the meet and greet.  You will sense dynamics with the service provider right away.  The new doctor did the normal stethoscope thingy on our son’s back and chest.  Our son pushed the stethoscope away – but with a big smile.  That is our son’s way of bonding.  He goofs on people he likes.  He wasn’t pushing it away in discomfort or anger, but in order to establish a kind of play time with the doctor.  This was a good sign.

I hope some of this is helpful.  There’s the saying about “being your own advocate” when interacting with the medical world.  Caregivers need to practice that for those in our care as well.

OK, I said I’d get back to Robert Palmer. Here’s your dose of 70s music:

Worthless and weak

I whined about Mother Nature last night, so I guess I can do the same about God the Father this morning.

Care givers have ample experience with unanswered prayer. Prayer that the diagnosis be wrong; prayer that the condition go away; prayer for resources that don’t come; prayer to “do it right” and fix everything that needs fixin’.

OK, sometimes the prayers are answered. But the great mystery is that so much of what’s good, true and beautiful comes when we are rebuffed,

Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:8-10, NLT

So up and at another day, friends. Let’s affirm the reality together, and let the power flow…

Have you seen this man?

Soooooooo…

We went to a wedding over the weekend.  All three of us – our son with autism included.

There was much in our favor.  The couple came from an extended family of friends that our son, Joey,  knows and enjoys.  The atmosphere was happy earthy rather than formal and uptight.  The weather featured a few of the rationed really-nice-days allocated to South Dakota every year.  And there was food to be downed.

As I shared earlier, the rehearsal went really well for our whole family.  And we were going back to the same place with the same folks for the wedding and reception.

Something changed.

Maybe it was the volume of the music in the reception hall.  Maybe it was the bigger crowd of people.  Whatever it was, it brought out Joey’s “best.”

5118Here’s a surveillance photo of the suspect.  Notice that the look isn’t very happy.  That little bucket was full of chex mix for snacking – he pulled it to himself, spilling some and playing tug-o-war with us as we tried to retrieve it.  Calm words about “sharing” failed.  Then he ate all the chex out of the mix and left us with just the pretzel bits.

What you might not be able to tell from this pic is that he’s not in a chair.  He’s on his knees on the floor.  We tried to coax him into a chair but that agitated him.

Then he scooted on his knees out into the middle aisle of the reception hall – just as the wedding party was set to make its entrance.

Joey’s figured out that he’s big enough to physically resist mom, so I had to hunker down on the floor and drag him just enough to clear the aisle until the wedding party made it through.

Then he stood up and started walking around in front of the head table, which of course was when people wanted to be taking pictures of the couple and their gorgeous bridesmaids and groomsmen.

I managed to stay just calm enough to convince Joey that he didn’t have to sit if he went and stood by the windows along the wall.

The long and short of it is that Melissa and I enjoyed our friends’ wedding very much, we all had a nice dinner and drinks (several drinks in reaction to Joey) and then came home and collapsed.

Care giving is a game of home court advantage – you usually wind up losing on the road.

My picture of defiant Joey – actually the whole vibe of trying to handle him – reminded me of this recent movie scene:

 

 

Mother’s Day on the Horizon

Here are a couple of good piece by MOMS of kids (little and grown) with autism:

At The Mighty, check out 15 Things I Hear as the Parent of an Autistic Child – And My Responses.

Mothers of all children with special needs and autistic children likely hear a whole lot of different things throughout their journeys, so to make appropriate social conduct a bit clearer and more defined, below is a list of what I believe is better not to say…

donna reedAnd give a read to Shaunta Grimes’ Coffelicious blog, This is what it looks like to be a Gen-X mom with an Indigo Child who isn’t a child anymore.  (Strong language & content).

It’s so tempting to try to browbeat him into sleeping more. (I have no idea why it would work with a 23-year-old man when it didn’t work for a three-year-old baby.) I also find myself wanting to monitor his computer time, restrict him from drinking and unprotected sex, and refuse to let him get his own apartment because I can’t see how he’ll be able to manage paying his own bills.

It’s easy to forget that having autism doesn’t make him less of an adult with his own mind and the God-given right to make his own decisions. And mistakes.

Me?  I’ll try to get Joey to help me honor Melissa on Mother’s Day, all the while dealing with the reality that he expects any holiday to mean presents for him.